Cigar Aficionado

When it comes to California Chardonnays, the vineyard can make all the difference

Robbie Meyer drives an SUV up dirt roads, tacking left and right. He's heading for a patch of Burgundy hidden in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, the source of two California Chardonnays that do passable imitations of Montrachet.

Meyer is the assistant winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, which makes some of America's finest Chardonnays in what is often called a Burgundian style. That means there's less blatant oakiness in Peter Michael's five single-vineyard releases than in most California Chardonnays, and only some of the intense fruit that American wine drinkers have come to associate with the grape.

In their place are elegant flavors often exquisitely balanced and, Meyer believes, a distinctiveness born of the particular vineyard in which the grapes are grown. "The wines are individual because they come from different places," Meyer says. "That's what makes them Burgundian."

In Burgundy, different vineyards create different wines. That's why village wines, regardless of the producer, cost so much less than grands cru from grapes grown a vineyard or two down the road. An attorney I know in Charlottesville, Virginia, only buys a dozen or so white Burgundies that all come from one particular vineyard, Les Folatières in Puligny-Montrachet, but are made by different producers. The wines, he told me once, remind him of different members of the same family.

Because nearly everyone makes their wines in much the same way in Burgundy, the most marked difference between one wine and the next is often that combination of soil, exposure to the elements and indefinable variables that the French have named terroir. That's not the case in Sonoma County, where advanced wine-making technique dates back to only about the Nixon Administration. Wine-making choices are still being made here. While Europeans are bound by both tradition and law to generally do things the way their predecessors did, Californians aren't. So if someone is making a big, rich Syrah somewhere in a California appellation, you can bet that someone else will be attempting an earthier, smokier type, just to see what will happen.

At the same time, no grape takes to stylistic experimentation like Chardonnay. If the famously difficult Pinot Noir grape taunts winemakers to find the tiny path through the metaphorical thicket that leads to a well-made wine, Chardonnay offers a six-lane highway with room for all styles, from lean and tight to pyrotechnically fruity. "Among winemakers," says Bill Parker, the former winemaker and director of estate operations at Matanzas Creek, "Chardonnay is called the blank canvas."

As a result, even in the small viticultural region of Sonoma County, the stylistic range of Chardonnays is astonishing. You can experience it for yourself the next time Angelo Sangiacomo holds a Chardonnay barrel-tasting involving the several dozen wineries to which he sells grapes. Every year, these single-vineyard cuvèes (many are ultimately blended with fruit from other sources before bottling) run the gamut from lush to lean, from ripe and rich to restrained, depending on how they've been made. And that's from one particular vineyard, the California equivalent of Les Folatières.

Compare such stylistic proliferation to, say, the red wines of Bordeaux, which are made of five grape varieties blended together in wildly varying proportions depending on the chateau and the vintage. Those grapes are grown over hundreds of square miles of terrain that ranges from sand to hillside, yet the blended Bordeaux wines invariably taste far more like each other than the wines that a single grape, Chardonnay, produces within the bounds of tiny Sonoma. That's what makes drinking California wines so exciting.

Meyer pulls his tenacious vehicle to a halt on a tiny dirt path that cuts between two vineyards amid a sea of vines surrounded by an azure sky. Peter Michael releases five different Chardonnays from single vineyards, and two of them -- Belle Côte and La Carrière -- originate here, high above Knight's Valley in easternmost Sonoma County. Both wines are made barrel-by-barrel by Luc Morlet and Meyer, following the same line of enological attack that started a decade ago with consultant Helen Turley. Otherwise, only the terroir is different. Think of them, then, as children of different families, each of whom attended the same finishing school.

But hold on. Sure, the sites have different sun exposure and soil type, but their distinctiveness has been enhanced by the selection of specific grape clones. Chardonnay comes in many varieties, each of which makes a slightly different kind of wine, so the Rued clone planted at Belle Côte is not quite the same raw material as the Dijon clone at La Carrière. It's not like growing peaches in one orchard to make peach juice and pears in another to make pear juice, but it's close.

At the same time, vineyard techniques such as pruning, vine spacing and late or early harvesting also affect the intensity and alcohol level of the grapes. That means that the vineyard workers are actually helping craft the wine, too. So I'm surprised to learn that Peter Michael's other three Chardonnays, which are even more exalted (and expensive) than Belle Côte and La Carrière, are not made from grapes grown on estate-owned land here or anywhere else, but from grapes that are purchased by the winery.

Cuvèe Indigene ($85) and Mon Plaisir ($60) are wines that come from individual lots of the Upper Barn of Alexander Mountain, a vineyard that used to be called the Gauer Ranch. Peter Michael's rarest and priciest Chardonnay, Point Rouge, is a blend of several tiny lots from the same vineyard. It costs $150 a bottle, only about 150 cases of it are made each year, and collectors covet each bottle.

And here's the kicker: the Alexander Mountain vineyard is owned by Jess Jackson, best known for his stewardship of Kendall-Jackson, which made 3.7 million cases of wine last year. Fruit from the same vineyard that is used to produce the ethereal Point Rouge is released under the Jackson-owned Stonestreet label as decidedly oaky, quintessentially American Chardonnay. It happens to be delicious, but Jackson would be the first to tell you it tastes nothing like Montrachet.

Burgundy lovers love to preach the omnipotence of terroir, but how would one explain two superb wines originating in the same place that are so markedly different?

I knew just the person to ask. Mark Aubert crafted Peter Michael Chardonnays for the better part of a decade, until 2000. He made the wines with Burgundy as his benchmark because that was the vision of Sir Peter Michael, the British businessman who founded the estate in 1987. In addition, Aubert had trained under Turley, who invokes Burgundy almost immediately in any discussion she has about wine. "The most exciting bottles of wine I've had in my life are Burgundies," she has said, and that's quite a wine-tasting life she's talking about.

Now Aubert -- who makes Colgin Cellars' Cabernet Sauvignon as his day job -- is off on a Chardonnay project of his own. Again his benchmark will be white Burgundy. "I admire white Burgundy because of the way it ages," he says over lunch in Calistoga, a town about seven miles south of Peter Michael. "I drank a '76 Montrachet from Domaine Leroy recently that brought me to my knees."

Although Burgundy is Aubert's benchmark, his wine-making vision is closer to home. He'll use techniques that don't attempt to overpower the grapes and call that Burgundian, but he's well aware that his grapes are Californian -- and so, inevitably, is the wine they produce.

"We talk about the Burgundian model, but it's really mostly technique," he says. "It rarely, if ever, shows in the flavor profile. There are great Sonoma Chardonnays out there that think they're Burgundian, and I have to say I don't get any Burgundy out of them at all. I love them because of what they are, not what they're trying to be, though the winemakers would hate me if they heard me say that. They're trying so hard to be Burgundian."

Sometimes, a great California Chardonnay can come in part from Burgundian methodology, and in part from something very different. In August 1993, about five years after contracting to make Chardonnay for Sir Peter Michael, the peripatetic Turley signed on as the consulting winemaker for Landmark Vineyards, which had been making and releasing wines far too haphazardly and was now under new management. Turley's unbending standards were a good fit for a drifting winery that was seeking a sense of purpose. Immediately, as is customary in a Turley project, the wines began to improve.

Like Peter Michael, which had been invented out of whole cloth, Landmark existed as something of a blank slate. There was no successful stylistic antecedent to continue on, no existing equity on which to build. There were previous vintages of the wines, but the less consumers confused the old and the new Landmark, the better.

As at Peter Michael, Turley looked to Burgundy, and single-vineyard wines made as an expression of the terroir. "Helen was a wonderful benchmark to set the tone for how we wanted to make the wine," says Mary Colhoun, who owns and runs Landmark with her husband, Mike. "She's very Burgundian in the approach that everything is single-vineyard and terroir, terroir, terroir. We liked that approach, except that we decided to blend."

Even a neophyte can see the contradiction. Admiring terroir-based wines but deciding to blend is like saying that you loved a certain recipe for beef Bourguignon except that you decided to replace the beef with monkfish. One can only hope that Turley was sitting down when the Colhouns told her of their plans to intermingle her site-specific cuvèes. "She participated in our selection of the blends and would give her opinion," Mary Colhoun says. But within three years, Turley was gone.

Today, Landmark purchases grapes from as many as 25 vineyards, then begins its blending process. Yet, its wines are malolactically fermented and aged in 100 percent French oak from top coopers, just as in Burgundy. No aspiring Burgundian could possibly condone such a process, yet superb wines are usually the result. "Whatever combination of sources it takes to make the wine the best it can be, that's fine," says Colhoun. "We're not wedded to any methodology."

Creamier than Peter Michael Chardonnays will ever be, the Landmark Overlook and Damaris Reserve releases are uniformly balanced, lush, ripe and giving. And that's exactly what the Colhouns were aiming for. "[We wanted] something that's silky-smooth on the palate," Mike Colhoun says. "A lot of white wines have a tendency to bite back, and we don't want that harshness."

I played a little game with Eric Stern, Landmark's winemaker, asking him how Burgundian he considered his wines on a scale of one to ten. One meant pure Californian and ten pure Burgundian, and instinctively he settled in at about a seven because he's a cultured, worldly man and admires the finest white Burgundies as the most noble expression he has encountered of the Chardonnay grape. But it soon became clear that he'd made a value judgment, equating typical California Chardonnay with "bad wine" and white Burgundy with "good wine." Most California winemakers who aspire to top quality will say the same; it's the vinous equivalent of racial profiling.

The fact is, as Stern quickly admitted, a cheap, random village wine from Burgundy is just as likely to be undrinkable as overoaked, mass-produced California Chardonnay from a hot valley floor. And California turns out plenty of small-batch, very expensive and very good wines that are about as Burgundian as the Beach Boys.

One of them is Journey, the limited-release cuvèes from Matanzas Creek. A blend of grapes from two vineyards, it costs $95 a bottle, and only 250 cases of it are produced in the years that the wine is made. As with the Peter Michael Chardonnays at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, nothing about Journey is left to chance. "Tasting through all the Journeys when I just got here, there is definitely a flavor profile in common that they were striving for," says Matanzas Creek winemaker Even Bakke, who left Landmark to replace Parker last year. "The two vineyards they were getting the fruit from have a very distinct flavor profile. But where Bill and [co-winemaker Susan Reed's] philosophy and mine differ is, I'm trying to minimize my impact on the wine."

And just as Sir Peter Michael decided to create a California winery to replicate the white Burgundies he loves, there are wineries constructed with the goal of producing the finest possible California Chardonnays, Burgundy be damned. Ferrari-Carano sits in a salmon-colored faux Italian villa that was dropped into its Dry Creek landscape in 1997. Don and Rhonda Carano are well-known hoteliers in Reno, Nevada. Outsiders may know the family name from Glenn Carano, Don's son, who played quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, or from Don's work as a gaming lawyer and Nevada state legislator. (The Ferrari part of the winery name has a family connection, but it mostly just sounds good.)

The flamboyant Caranos are as Nevada as Sir Peter Michael is English countryside. You wouldn't expect their wines to be demure or restrained, and they aren't. "We have a house style," says Ferrari-Carano winemaker George Bursick. "We approach wine making knowing what clones to plant, what yeast strains to use in order to encourage certain blocks of plants to create certain flavors -- all of that. This isn't the kind of thing where we throw up our hands and say, 'Gee, I hope it turns out like last time.'"

Ferrari-Carano's Chardonnays are known for flavors of exotic, tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. The initial 1985 release offered those flavors and the buttery-mouth feel of many of the better California Chardonnays, and it became a model for the vintages that followed. "The '85 was hugely successful," Bursick says. "It established us as apart from the pack, and what we've done over the last 15 years is build on that style to make it even better."

Their wines sell at modest prices -- $24 to $32 -- because as much as 35,000 cases of the basic Chardonnay are made in some years. This isn't exalted collector's wine, but Bursick will argue that it is made just as well as any Burgundy imitator. "People for some reason like to compare their wines with Burgundy, and I don't understand why," he says. "A lot of California consumers would not like white Burgundies if they had them. They're tight, often acidic, sharply focused wines, and they don't have that generous nature of California wines."

Bursick was born and raised in Santa Rosa and went to school in Santa Barbara and Davis. He came of age making wine with his friends in the California sun, not drinking Batard-Montrachet on the Riviera. "I have a California palate," he says, "and I'm happy to be Californian. Burgundy happened to be there first, but if California had come first, they'd probably be trying to make California wines in Burgundy."

Perhaps so, but not everyone would be happy about it. "I taste Ferrari-Carano's Chardonnay, and I certainly think it's an accomplishment to make wine in such large quantities that has no evident flaws," says Peter Michael's Meyer. "But it just doesn't challenge me. That's why there's a value in the wines we make at Peter Michael. People go and seek them out because it challenges them." He sticks his nose in a glass and grins. "I mean, smell those aromas! Taste that complexity," he says.

Who's right? Sometimes the question runs like a fault line through a winery, even a family. "Personally, I don't like white Burgundies," says Joe Rochioli, a Sonoma county grapegrower whose son, Tom, produces California wines with Burgundian methodology. "I like something that's fruity, soft." "We're not in Burgundy," Tom Rochioli admits. "But bringing out the best in the grape, that's what I consider Burgundian. The challenge in making wine is to try and make sure that nobody can pick elements out of it. That's why you go to the second glass, for that complexity. And there's something about Burgundies that just keeps me interested."

"Yeah, but they can be rough, compared to our wines," Joe responds. "And when they are, 'Pssscht! Right down the sink!'" Rochioli is created for a different audience than Ferrari-Carano. The Colhouns at Landmark and the winemakers at Matanzas Creek are trying to make ample, easy-to-appreciate wines that appeal to the repeat customer. On the other hand, one particular Englishman with another piece of land in Sonoma County has stylistic expectations that run quite different. There's something magical about land that can produce them all.

But if Peter Michael's Belle Côte or Point Rouge ever came out tasting like an over-oaked California Chardonnay, no explanation would mollify Sir Peter. He's looking for Burgundy in the Sonoma hillsides, nothing less. Meyer, his eyes wide at the thought of such heresy, says, "Oh, he would have a fit."